From as early as the fourth or fifth centuries AD, we can name as many as a dozen women who undertook pilgrimage to the holy sites of Palestine and Egypt – and can make note of the dozens more nameless ones who are mentioned in the saints’ lives of the times. It is far from surprising that pilgrimage became a popular form of religious expression for Christian women – journeying in search of a cure or divine intervention had been popular among women for centuries, as the fourth century BC cure lists from Epidauros in Greece demonstrate. However, it becomes clear from some objections registered by prominent Church leaders, that the religiously charged environment in which pilgrimage took place did present pious women with obstacles in their quest for their objective. These obstacles presented themselves both on the journey itself and at the destination, and were especially concerned with issues of accommodation.
There is a paradox within the monastic ideal: on the one hand, monks are meant to withdraw from the world into spiritual and ascetic seclusion; on the other hand, scripture enjoins hospitality on all Christians, to emulate the model of Abraham at Mamre – “for in this way some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). This paradox becomes especially pronounced in the course of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as monastic communities become custodians of the increasingly popular pilgrim shrines in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Near East. Some practitioners took this paradox to extremes, such as the stylite saints, who maintained a highly visible seclusion while at the same dispensing advice and blessings to large numbers of visitors. Historical texts, such as saints’ lives or pilgrim accounts, describe the tensions that arise from the paradox. Below I explore the scriptural and pious models for hospitality and charity, and the resulting conflict between monastic seclusion and pilgrim hospitality as described in the sources. I will also look at issues such as different levels of access to public and private space, differentiation between monastic and lay guests, and differentiation by gender.